For Sir András Schiff, ‘Music is my oasis — it starts and ends in silence’

The world-renowned keyboardist, conductor and pedagogue Sir András Schiff has long been a major force in the classical realm. As the Boston Globe once put it, he is “one of the most penetratingly serious masters of the keyboard before the public today.” His broad repertoire is steeped in Bach, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert and Bartók. His celebrated recordings and prestigious awards are too numerous to mention. And he takes the time to pass along his hard-won knowledge in master classes and performance lectures.

Shortly before his SCP Piano recital Nov. 12 at Orchestra Hall, Schiff answered some questions about music and life. But not about what he’ll be performing. He prefers to announce his program from the stage. As the New York Times once noted, Schiff “has an impish streak and likes to surprise.” 

Can you give us any hints about what you’ll be playing at Symphony Center?

I will be playing the piano — a Bösendorfer VC280 — and nothing but very great music by very great composers. The rest is a surprise.

You've been a strong advocate for period instrument performances of classical music, playing on an 1820 Brodmann fortepiano, the Brahms B-flat Piano Concerto on a 19th-century Blüthner and Bach on a clavichord. What are the benefits and challenges of playing historical instruments, and how do they influence your interpretation of the music?

We don’t have recordings of Bach, Mozart or Beethoven playing their own works — what a pity! But we do have those instruments that they knew and loved, and this is invaluable information. These instruments teach us so much about sound, balance between the registers, articulation. Also about tempi. On an old instrument it’s simply impossible to play too fast because the notes won’t speak. Similarly, you can’t play slow movements too slow because the notes die in mid-air. So when playing on a Steinway or a Bösendorfer, I gather all this information and transfer it. Hopefully we don’t get “lost in translation.”

What is more important for achieving a level of success (not necessarily at your level, which is very rare) as a professional concert pianist: natural talent or unwavering dedication to the music and instrument?

Both are of equal importance. Instinct and intellect. Furthermore, we can influence young people to aim for a broader culture, literature, the visual arts, history, philosophy, science. They are all connected. Sitting at the piano for endless hours will not accomplish that.

You’re well known for your interpretations of Bach’s music. Why do his works resonate with you?

There is no doubt about it, J.S. Bach is the greatest composer who has ever lived. To explain this is as useless as it would be to talk about the magnificence of the sun. And some people will never get it.

You like to perform in smaller, more intimate venues when possible. How does venue size impact your connection with the audience and the music you're performing?

Yes, intimate music feels at home in intimate surroundings. It’s very difficult — but not impossible — to achieve that in a huge auditorium with 2,000 listeners. However, even in a big hall, we must stay natural, try to concentrate and focus the sound. Not to blow it all up and play bigger and louder. That would be unforgivable.

From the Guardian: “While [Schiff] is capable of conjuring up the most ravishing colors and crystalline transparency from his instrument, he doesnt shy away from more forthright, rougher sounds when appropriate.” From a technical and artistic perspective, how do you achieve precision and detail in your performances, and how do you approach the “rougher sounds”?

Precision is not my goal. We are not machines or robots who deliver immaculate perfection. Take Alfred Cortot— so many “wrong” notes and “mistakes,” and yet it’s great artistry, full of risk-taking, and with a multitude of colors. Most of today’s competition winners — [there are] no mistakes, no risk-taking and [it’s] artistically meaningless.

The piano is a rather black-and-white instrument, and it takes an artist to make the listeners forget that with a series of illusions — like producing a singing legato or by creating a world of colors through fantasy and imagination. Each composer, each work has its own world of sound. Rough sounds — Beethoven very often needs them. Music is not always and never just “beautiful.” However, the same roughness is not acceptable in Mozart or Schubert.

Your memoir is titled Music Comes Out of Silence. Can you elaborate on what that means to you and how it influences your artistry?

We live in a very noisy world, and I suffer from it greatly. Wherever we go — in restaurants, hotels, elevators, even in the lavatory — we are bombarded by “music.” No one asks us whether we actually want to hear it; it’s always there, there’s no escape. Not to mention the noise on the streets, construction, etc. So music is my oasis. It starts and ends in silence. And even in between, there are those rests, pauses. My problem with pop music is just that: It’s unbearably loud, it has this horrible mechanical beat, and there are never any pauses or rests.

Given everything that’s happening in the world today between warring groups in the United States and elsewhere, to what degree do you still believe in the power of music — yours and other genres — to unite and heal?

Let’s not be naïve, we cannot save humankind. For that, we are much too insignificant. But yes, I do believe in the healing power of music and the arts. It’s a great privilege.